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When To Walk Away From (and come back to) A Problem

Published 5/1/2020

When do you walk away from a problem to find the solution?

In today's episode of Developer Tea, we're answering this question submitted from a listener.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
In the last episode of Developer Tea, we talked about problem solving modes and specifically your default problem solving mode. In today's episode, we're going to continue this discussion and actually answer a question from a reviewer. This question was actually posted in the review when do you walk away from a problem in order to find the solution? My name is Jonathan Cutrell. My goal in the show is to help German developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And this question is not an easy question to answer. And if you don't understand the premise of this question, let's back up and talk a little bit about the science of problem solving. The science of problem solving, as it turns out, is the same. One in the same is a science of learning. So looking for some piece of information that you didn't have before, and more explicitly, you're using older pieces of information in order to kind of scaffold towards that new piece. You can visually imagine that the old pieces of information are kind of the bricks in the wall that eventually will make it high enough to where you can reach that next spot. But this metaphor doesn't really hold up perfectly because if you take the metaphor at face value, you can imagine that you can go and gather those bricks together and just through sheer force of will and energy build that wall. And this is our intuition that the longer we spend, expending energy in building that scaffolding, the more likely that scaffolding will get built on time. Unfortunately, the wall very often either comes crumbling down or maybe you're building the wrong wall or building it in the wrong direction or maybe you're taking a brick from one part of the wall and just putting on another part of the wall, not making any progress but just shifting things around. Now that we've exhausted the metaphor, let's talk a little bit about why this is the case. What is it exactly that our brains are doing when we're problem solving? Now, there's obviously not an easy answer that will fit in a five minute podcast like this one, but to summarize, your brain is looking for pathways. It's looking for pathways from information that you've been exposed to previously and it's trying to find the most efficient pathways or the most well-traveled ones, the ones that are most likely to fire. Our brains are big networks. That shouldn't be surprising to us as engineers. Networks of neurons. Now, we don't want to oversimplify this because the mental model of a neural network is only part of the way towards actually modeling what our brains do. So we don't want to actually kind of backfill that mental model into how we understand neural science, but we can understand the basic premise that the more connections that we have or the stronger the connections more specifically, the more likely we're going to go down that path. That information is more likely to be recalled. But there's a critical point about this path making and path finding that we very often miss. I'm going to talk about that critical point right after we talk about today's sponsor, Linode. Linode has 11 data centers worldwide. You can get root access to a Linux server on one of those data centers or spread across those data centers for as little as $5 a month. The Nanode plans start as low as $5. You get dedicated CPU plans if you want them to go on the other into the spectrum in terms of power. The Nanode plan, you can get root access to a Linux server just like you can on those dedicated CPU plans. So you can do really cool projects and then scale them up. Great thing about Linode is that it's built by developers. So if you want to scale up in an automated way, for example, you're going to have root access, but you're also going to have an API and a Python CLI. So if you know how to use those things as a developer, you can automate the management of your server. They also have a revamped cloud manager. It's built on an open source single page app. You can find that at cloud.Linode.com. And of course, Linode's code can all be found on GitHub. Like I said, they are a team of developers building tools for other developers. Go and check out what Linode has to offer. And you can get a $20 credit by heading over to linneode.com slash Developer Tea and use the code Developer Tea2020 checkout. Thank you again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. When we think about problem solving in these neural pathways, we imagine that our brains are something that we can turn on and off. That when we're awake and when we're working, that we're kind of adding to those pathways. And then when we're resting, when we're veging out, watching TV or even when we're exercising that those pathways are cold, that the city, the network of roads in our brain kind of shuts down. But as it turns out, basically the opposite is true. Our brains require rest in order to make those pathways efficiently. Mental fatigue is a very real thing. And as it turns out, humans' brains actually expend way more energy than other animals' brains. Our brains are constantly active even when we are asleep. But the critical point to take away here is not that our brains are active, but that there's different types of activity that happen when we rest versus when we are actively engaging a subject when we're trying to recall something, for example. And we need both. We need the recall. We need the intentional kind of exercise of those pathways. But we also need, and perhaps in a greater measure than the average person gets, we also need that rest and downtime. And that downtime can be as simple as stepping away from your computer and taking a walk. Now, to answer the question asked by the user to Snowboard, that's number two, Snowboard, on iTunes, unfortunately there is no prescription. There's no specific amount of time. There's not a particular rhythm that works for everyone. Although it is true pretty much universally for humans that we follow some rhythms. You can listen to my interview with Daniel Pink about this particular subject. He wrote a book called Win, and that book talks a lot about these kinds of things, about what is our daily rhythm? For example, our daily pattern is a peak, a trough, and a recovery. And every person tends to have a different kind of shape to win that happens in their day. But this also happens in much smaller ways, for example, imagine doing three hours of intense meetings. At the end of that three hours, it's very likely that you're ready for a break. Now, if you did the same amount of meetings over the course of, let's say, six hours, and between each meeting you had 20 minutes to just totally relax, do whatever you want to, go on a walk, and then 40 minutes to do some kind of focused work or something unrelated to what those meetings are about. It's very likely that that breaking those up is going to make the third meeting much more bearable. Number one, encourage you to adopt some kind of similar pattern to the Pomodoro technique. You don't absolutely have to use a timer. You don't absolutely have to follow every single rule with Pomodoro, but the simple idea of working for a period until you kind of need a brain break and then stepping away, taking a five or ten minute walk is particularly effective, and that's also packed by science as it turns out. But if you step away from your work and come back to it, you're much more likely to get more work done, not just for the sake of productivity, but also for the sake of quality. And the second thing that I'll recommend to you is when you start to feel tired or when you start to feel worn out, to not try to suppress that. This is a cultural phenomenon, especially in the United States, that when you're tired you should push through. And we see movies about the subject that kind of the last hour of the fight, and you're worn out and you try to push through. And all this probably works really well in movies and there's some dramatic effect to it. It's likely that your worst work will be done when you're trying to push through. Instead listen to that feeling of burnout. Listen to that feeling of strain. Your brain is not ignoring the work that needs to be done. You're not just being weak by taking a break. In fact, you're being smart. You're listening to your body, you're listening to your brain, you're listening to exactly what that mechanism was created to do. It's created to help you achieve that work, not the opposite. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I think we're getting to Linoid for sponsoring today's episode. Head over to linoid.com slash Developer Tea. Use the code Developer Tea 2020 that's Developer Tea 2020 at checkout for $20 worth of credit. Today's episode was inspired by a question from listener to snowboard on iTunes. I would love to see more questions from you. You can share those in those iTunes reviews, just like to snowboard did, or you can send them directly to me at Developer Tea at gmail.com. I'm also on Twitter at Developer Tea. By the way, those kinds of reviews are how we keep this show going because when people leave reviews on iTunes, it helps other developers find and then ultimately decide to download and listen to this show. So thank you so much to those of you who have taken the time, the five minutes that it takes to leave a review and makes a huge difference to the longevity of this podcast. Today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson as a part of the spec.fm network. Go and check out the other awesome shows that are made for developers like you looking to level up in their careers at spec.fm. My name is Jonathan the Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.